Sermon - "By Grace through Faith"
Lord, open our hearts to receive from your word. Open my lips to proclaim your word in truth. Grant us repentance in response to your Law. Give us your joy and confident hope in response to your Gospel. This we pray in the name of ┼ the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We've read it once again today. We receive God's blessing by grace through faith, as did Abraham. And God's people throughout history have claimed exactly the same thing. God's blessing is granted only by God's grace. So how is it that we get things so terribly wrong? How is it that we see Christians, throughout history, trying to earn their salvation? Why do we see the "foolish Galatians" who are trying to maintain their salvation by their own works rather than continuing to trust in Christ? Why do we see the Roman Catholic church in the sixteenth century officially condemning the idea that salvation is by grace through faith, and only changing that position grudgingly in the late twentieth century? How does this happen?
There's a fundamental pattern that Lutherans have been emphasizing ever since there came to be Lutherans nearly 500 years ago. This way of looking at Scripture involves rightly distinguishing between Law and Gospel. Martin Luther said that any seven year old can tell you the difference between Law and Gospel. Law is what God demands that we do. Gospel is what God has done for us. It's a very easy distinction. But here's the challenge. Open your Bible and distinguish between Law and Gospel. Luther said anyone who could do that should be an esteemed Doctor of Theology. It's a very hard task. We confuse Law and Gospel all the time. And when we do that, ultimately we tend to look for our confidence in our own works, our own ability to keep the law, our obedience to the demands of God. We end up looking for love in all the wrong places. We find nothing but sin – pride or hopelessness.
The law of God, God's righteous demands, shows our sin and our inability. That's why salvation can't be by the law. It can't be by works of righteousness that we do. It has to be by God's grace. We see this in the covenant God makes with Abram. Normally we think of a covenant as a two-sided agreement. It's a contract. Think about how a job works. You agree to come to work and do the things your employer wants you to do. Your employer agrees to pay you and do some other things for you. It's very two-sided. If you stop coming to work, you don't get paid. If your employer stops paying you, you won't be coming to work. But God's covenant with Abram is very one-sided.
The covenant was instituted by God. It was not by mutual request. God approached Abram. He told Abram what Abram would do and what he himself would to for Abram.
Usually a covenant has mutual benefits. You are hired to do something your employer wants or needs done. So the employer gains through the agreement. God's covenant with Abram has no benefit for God. It has a benefit only for Abram and his descendants. There's no blessing for God. It's all from God to Abram.
Normally both people involved in a covenant make promises. But here only God makes promises. We see that even more clearly in Genesis 15, where God binds himself to keep his covenant with Abraham but he prevents Abraham from making a promise. God is the one who makes promises. He is the one who is infallibly able to keep his promises.
So we see that God initiates the covenant, he gives all the benefits, he binds himself to the covenant by making promises. Finally we see that this covenant is realized by belief, not by obedience. In fact, as we examine it more, it is less and less like a job contract. It's more like an adoption. Abraham does not work for his wages. And even someone who does work still does not have a promise of wages. There is no wage in God's covenant. It's all about gifts that God gives. There's no payback. That is about merit. This is about grace. Anything we receive is a gift, not a wage. The wage of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ (Rom. 3).
What do we do when we hear about this promise of God? So often we find ourselves asking, as Abram probably did, "What must I do?" There's something about our sinful nature that wants to take the gospel promises of God and turn them into demands of the law.
Now we don't want to forget God does tell us what to do. The Scripture is full of God's statements of what is pleasing to him. We don't deny that at all. But we realize salvation is by grace. All our obedience will never save us. We simply aren't capable of doing it right. Sin condemns us. And we cannot earn our way back from that condemnation. The good news is that we are not in the process of earning a wage. We do not have a covenant with God which we can keep. We have a covenant with God which he instituted and which he keeps. We are receiving a gift, not earning a wage.
How do we receive that gift? We receive it by believing God's promise. That's all there is to it. Just like Abram, just like Nicodemus, so also we look to God's promise.
So what is that promise? Here's that pure gospel. It's the promise of what God has done for us. Jesus has worked our righteousness out for us. It is not something we do or something we devised. It's something initiated by our Lord Jesus, according to his perfect wisdom, grace, and knowledge of our sinful condition. And not only has Jesus worked our righteousness out for us, he is the one who gives birth to faith in God's promises. The Bible says we are dead in sin. We cannot help ourselves. But God in Christ has given us new life. He has given us faith to believe, working that faith through Word and Sacraments, according to his promises in Romans 10, Acts 2, and many other places. Knowing that we cannot keep a covenant, Jesus, the one who institutes the covenant, also keeps it on our behalf, giving himself to die for our sins, showing that he is the resurrection and the life. And in case we should think there's something in us that is deserving of his mercy, he gives his life for the sins of the whole world. It's nothing personal. It's not about you. It's about Jesus given for you. Then, finally, we see that Jesus, the resurrected Lord, is present to bring his grace to us in Word and sacrament. Just as Jesus is all-present in his divine nature, he is able to be with us just as he promises. And his presence is specifically in order to visit us with his grace.
There's the gospel! Salvation starts with God, is worked out by God's will, and will be brought to completion by God's grace in Christ Jesus. We are saved by grace. It is not of works. It's not something we can do. It's God's promise, for us.
Let's stand to pray together.
Our Lord, we sin against you when we think we can bring anything to the table, negotiating with you for salvation, for righteousness. Keep us from this sin, by your grace. Remind us daily of our salvation, gained through the righteousness of faith. Let us look to your promises, for you ever live to make intercession for us. This we pray through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives with ┼ the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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